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Propaganda and Love of the Ugly

Anthony Daniels (a/k/a "Theodore Dalrymple") at The New Criterion

Photo by Sherman Yang / Unsplash
Dalrymple on the WNBA
Anthony Daniels aims at three of my favorite targets: (1) The relentless propaganda to push the WNBA on the populace (but in Daniels’ case, he marvels at the propaganda to push female soccer in Europe), (2) tattoo culture, and (3) ugly buildings (“brutalism”). Underlying these three seemingly disparate things: A

Sometimes I think (or is it feel?) that we are living in a propaganda state, not like that of North Korea, of course, in which the source of a univocal doctrine is clear and unmistakable, but one in which we are constantly under bombardment by an opinion-forming class that wants to make us believe, or be enthusiastic about, something to which we were previously indifferent or even hostile. There is no identifiable single source of the propaganda, and yet there seems also to be coordination: for how else to explain its sudden ubiquity? It is more Kafka than Orwell.

For example, quite recently there has been a concerted attempt to persuade the European public that women’s football (soccer) is interesting and exciting. The newspapers and online publications suddenly carry stories about it, with pictures, reports, profiles, and the like, whereas, shortly before, most people were only vaguely aware that women even played football.

No one can object to their doing so, of course, but the fact remains that they are not very good at it, at least not by comparison with men. They may be good—but with for women always appended. It is not the fault of women that they are not very good at football, any more than it is the fault of fish that they are illiterate, but the fact that everyone pretends not to notice it and dares not say it, at least in public, is surely a little sinister. A man of seventy may still play a good game of tennis, but it is always for his age: one wouldn’t expect him to win Wimbledon, nor would one expect excited, breathless reports on an over-seventies’ tennis tournament. The sudden interest in women’s football thus has a bogus feel about it, like the simulated enthusiasm of a crowd for the dictator in a communist state.

Many examples of the phenomenon could be given. Ever since I first noticed the ascent of tattooing up the social scale, now a quarter century ago, I have collected books about it in desultory fashion, all of them laudatory of so-called body art. Over the years, as an ever-higher percentage of the population mutilates itself in this way, I have had to change my interpretation of the phenomenon. At first, I thought it was a typical example of intellectual and moral preening, as well as of condescension towards the insulted and injured—the torn jeans of the skin, as it were. Not so very long ago, it was predominantly the marginalized—prisoners and the like—who were tattooed. Therefore, those who were not themselves marginalized sought to identify themselves with those who were, imitation supposedly being the highest form of empathy, while hypocritically enjoying the advantages of non-marginalization.

Now that a third of adults in America are tattooed, this can no longer be the explanation, if it ever was. The desire for individuation and self-expression is the commonly accepted explanation, even by those who see tattooing as a triumphant advance in human freedom. At last, people are free to express themselves! At last, they can display to the world their innermost thoughts! At last, they can actually be themselves! All this is frequently, and indeed repeatedly, intoned by the intellectual fellow travelers of the fashion for tattoos, very rarely it being noted that such individuation and self-expression—if that is what it is—is indicative of tragedy, not liberation. The almost universal intellectual laudation of the phenomenon demonstrates (to my mind) the sheeplike nature of modern intellectual life, intellectuals being followers rather than the leaders they suppose themselves to be. A hundred million Americans can’t be wrong, or at any rate it would not be prudent to say so; praise be, then, to tattoos!

That professional tattooists have undoubtedly become highly skilled is everywhere taken as proof that they are artists, though skill is not the same as art; indeed, skill exercised for a worthless end is morally worse than incompetence. If I were a theist, which I am not, I would even say that skill exercised in this way is an insult to God’s freely given gift. As it is, it simply appalls me.

At any rate, there seems to have been a concerted attempt to persuade us that what not long ago would have been considered degradation is actually human advance. And, incidentally, what goes for tattooing also goes for the graffiti that so disfigure urban spaces. (The two aesthetic sensibilities, those of tattooing and of modern urban graffiti, seem to me to have at least a family resemblance.) The many books about the phenomenon of tagging also consider it a liberation and a form of art, as if everywhere had suddenly become Renaissance Florence. Again, one detects a certain cowardice, or at least insincerity, in this.

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Propaganda & uglification | The New Criterion
Anthony Daniels on tattoos & brutalism.